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Keeping the Rhythm

Andrew C. Thomas

I was relieved to hear that new MBTA rules regarding subway musicians would be delayed until Dec. 8. Hopefully, the next week will give the MBTA and the Subway Artists Guild time to negotiate a fair compromise. As an occasional T commuter, I would be heartbroken if the currently proposed change in public performance policy goes through. As an amateur musician, sympathetic to those whose livelihood depends on their ability to perform, I would be devastated.

The MBTA has very legitimate concerns about the practice of subway performance. Some musicians break the barriers of common courtesy and turn their volume knobs up to 11 -- which would seem to suggest that they’re asking people to pay for them to shut up. They must also worry that the musicians themselves are presenting the best face of their organization.

That’s why some of the new rule changes are long overdue. Insisting on photo IDs for these buskers and a fee of $25 to cover the cost -- in addition to no other costs, a distinct advantage over many other types of professional licenses -- should help to quell most security fears. Asking musicians to dress neatly benefits everyone, by blending the artist’s talents with an air of professionalism that an organization like the MBTA insists upon in its hired staff.

But the central issue that has angered the musicians, and many MBTA riders, is the controversial blanket ban on anything with even a hint of volume. By prohibiting amplification, electric instruments or horns, the new rules will devastate the subway musician community. Gone from the tunnels will be the electric keyboard (a considerably lighter alternative than bringing a piano down the escalator), the traditional sounds of bagpipes (which is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but still one that deserves respect), or a solitary saxophone (which, as any jazz fan knows, need not be loud to be beautiful).

MBTA officials claim that the music itself is a security hazard, preventing important announcements to be heard over the loudspeaker system -- a system so poorly functional that announcements are barely audible in empty stations, music or no music. I recently read with amusement in the Globe a letter suggesting that the musicians could be deputized to transmit those announcements themselves, which would certainly be more effective than the current scheme.

Clearly both sides must compromise on this issue. They would do well to look at subway systems in other cities to see how they resolved similar disputes. I grew up in Toronto, when the Transit Commission had similar disagreements with its musicians over 25 years ago. At that time, a ban on all musicians proved to be ineffective when more stalwart artists persisted at their favorite makeshift stages, and only served to antagonize the TTC.

It was when the TTC decided to regulate the licenses that everything began to work out for both sides. By encouraging competition for performance spots, judged by a wide range of Canadian musicians and musical judges, the system ensures that the best possible quality is heard in its stations. Auditions are conducted publicly every August, and a limited number of licenses are awarded, with a fee, to roughly half of those who audition. Those who are selected would gladly pay the price to maintain the privilege.

Boston is a deeply rich city in terms of musical talent. Tracy Chapman got her start playing in Harvard Square and in the T station below; Boston has many prominent music schools. There is no reason why the MBTA cannot turn this situation to its advantage by creating a selection process and using the immense wealth of musical adjudication in the city to help select the best performers -- and those who would respect a moderate volume level, which should satisfy MBTA officials.

Unlike much of Western Europe, where outdoor performance venues are common thanks to warm weather, Boston musicians are dependent on indoor stages to sustain them year round. The MBTA, likewise, has a strong compelling interest to keep a friendly, warm atmosphere in its subway stations for the benefit of its patrons. This is a marriage that helps both parties, and need not result in estrangement. With one week to go before this draconian policy takes effect, I am certain that both sides can find an acceptable compromise to the situation, be it based on the Toronto model or something equally innovative.